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Toe to toe, Twin Cities dance community measures up

Several years ago, Minnesota Public Radio was broadcasting a show on the state of the arts in Minnesota when a guy called in and, quite incredulously, barked, “We’ve got a dance community? I’ve never heard of a dance community here. There’s dance here? What?”

Of course, I immediately attempted to enlighten this poor man about the incredible depth and diversity of dance styles that can be seen in a plethora of venues almost any night of the week in the Twin Cities. But I was soon cut off. (That’s another story.) And, of course, my evidence was anecdotal. I didn’t have statistics — those all-important, irrefutable factoids — to back up my observations.

Now, however, I have them. Or rather, John Munger has them. A longtime local dancer and choreographer, the ever-thorough Munger is also the director of research and information for Washington, D.C.-based Dance USA, a service organization for professional dance. So I called him, and what a fount of information he is.

En pointe and key points
Munger kicked off our conversation with these numbers, which always remain slightly in flux, as people and institutions come and go: There are 317 studios, college and university dance departments, and schools teaching dance in Minnesota. We have 174 dance-making entities in the state compared with 48 identified in 1989. In the last two years, Munger counted 1,149 performances happening somewhere in the Twin Cities, which averages out to about 600 a year or 11 per weekend.

Whew. No wonder I’m so busy.

Finally, no other city in the country has as high a per-capita percentage of midsize modern and chamber-ballet companies (those with budgets of $500,000 to around $1 million). Zenon Dance Company, James Sewell Ballet, Ragamala Music and Dance Theater, Ballet of Dolls and Minnesota Dance Theater fall into this category.

Now, really, what does all this mean? How do we measure up with other dance communities around the country? “The Twin Cities dance picture is widely regarded in the nation, by dance professionals, as one of a half-dozen significant dance communities in the nation,” Munger says. “We are competitive — in terms of size, quality and quantity of dance — with such cities as Seattle, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.”

Munger also insists that “there is much more dance happening (here) in many more venues than the general population or the media realize.”

Growing leaps and bounds
The fastest-growing segment of our community is culturally specific dance. We’re not just talking long-established companies like Katha Dance Theatre (Kathak dance of North India), Ragamala (Bharatanatyam from South India), Jaawahir Dance Company (Middle Eastern) or Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre (Spanish flamenco). We’re also talking about what Munger describes as “incredibly hard-to-find companies that perform primarily for their own large communities—and sometimes pop up during the annual Minnesota Fringe Festival,” such as CAAM Chinese Dance Theatre and the Tibetan group KIPO!.

According to Munger and his colleagues at Dance USA, this broad diversity of genres — which includes tap, dance theater, experimental dance, site dance, jazz, modern and post-modern dance — is just one of the qualities that makes the Twin Cities dance community unique. Another is the variety of experience levels in the Twin Cities, from absolute beginners who can find a stage for their work in venues ranging from the University of Minnesota to the monthly 9X22 showcase at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, to longtime professionals. Similarly, this area supports dancers and choreographers from their teen years to those in their 60s and 70s.

At the same time, Munger says, the Twin Cities dance community is “still small enough that you can wrap your mind around it. There are enough dance-making entities to generate diversity, but few enough that one human can get the big picture.”

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